The best teaching comes about from having not only a good lesson plan for each individual section but also a view of the big picture, a sense of how individual sections ﬁt into the grand scheme of things. After all, if you don’t know what each section is for, then you can’t communicate that to your students, and if they don’t know why they’re in section, then why should they go?
Bottom line: once you’ve taken into account what your professor expects, ﬁll in the gaps and make the section your own.
Preparing For Class
What does it mean to be prepared for class? Lecturers have an easier time answering this question because the standard for a good lecture, while difﬁcult to achieve, is easy to identify. Preparing a section, or any class, in which you want students to act on, think about, scrutinize, or practice using material requires a different form of preparation. The most obvious and important difference is that class can truly succeed only if everyone—not just you—is prepared. You therefore need to focus your preparation around the preparation and the learning of your students.
You may find that the section you are teaching is “optional.” In our experience, the more you treat this section as a real (required) section — following the advice below — the more your students will take your section seriously.
Where to Start: A Five-Stage Game Plan for Sections
In general, being prepared for class has less to do with how much or how little time you spend preparing, and more to do with how well and how wisely you use that time. In this way, preparing for class is a lot like writing a paper or preparing to take an exam. That little analogy may or may not be reassuring.
So what do you actually do to prepare? Alas, there’s no simple way, nor any “best” way, to prepare for class. What TFs do in preparation for section varies signiﬁcantly among disciplines, courses, TFs, and sections. The best sections are those in which the point of the section is made clear, and this ties in with the pre-semester preparation discussed above. Once you’ve talked with your faculty member about the role section is going to play in the course and thought about how you envision your sections operating within that framework, you can think about what each individual section is meant to accomplish:
- Are you introducing students to a speciﬁc controversy?
- Getting them to contrast the views of two different authors?
- Teaching them a skill?
- Illustrating a problem?
If you know what a section is meant to accomplish, then you’ll have a good idea how to prepare. Just doing the assigned reading usually isn’t sufﬁcient.
Have an Itinerary
Once you’ve ﬁgured out the role of a speciﬁc section, you can move on to planning how that session will unfold. Many sections begin with the TF asking that most dreaded of questions, “So, what did you think of the reading?” Ugh. Unless the reading was really interesting or really controversial, you can almost guarantee that such an opener will be met with the sounds of paper being shufﬂed, gum being snapped, and brain functions shutting down.
College classes, after all, should be mental workouts. Would you go to the gym, walk over to a treadmill, and start sprinting right off? Probably not. Would you sprint non-stop for ﬁfty minutes, then come to a screeching halt and leave immediately? Doubtful. Think of teaching in the same way. No matter what your subject, it’s helpful to conceive of each section meeting as following a basic ﬁve-stage scheme.
A Five-Stage Game Plan for Section
- Prepare students to learn
- Present new material
- Nurture student engagement
- Encourage metacognition and reflection
- Provide guidance and feedback for the next section
Stage One: Prepare students to learn
Make it clear that class –- and, with luck, learning -– are about to begin. Your students are probably running in from lunch, or another class, or ﬁeld hockey practice, or a work-study job. Their minds are probably not focused on the task at hand. You simply need to quiet the usual pre-class chatter, close the door, and take a minute or two to create that focus. You should make clear what the goals and expectations are for that particular meeting (or, early in the semester, for section as a whole). This can also be a good time to make administrative announcements, comment on the previous week’s section, or whatever else makes a smooth but discernible transition from life-outside-section to section.
Stage Two: Present new material
Present any new material; this doesn’t necessarily mean a lecture or anything formal, but merely represents the stage when learning really kicks in. It might be no more than a few minutes in which you give some background on the authors or works the students read, watched, or listened to for that meeting. This is also the point when most students will take out their notebooks, laptops, or clay tablets and begin taking notes. Remember that real, deep learning rarely occurs when students are passive, so try to keep this stage as short as possible while still doing everything you need to do.
Stage Three: Nurture student engagement
This is the “discussion” part of “discussion sections.” At this point the learning process should shift from you to the students. That doesn’t mean that you relinquish control of the class—quite the contrary, in fact. You have to pull off an amazing stunt: you need to skillfully and gently guide the class discussion or activity where it needs to go while simultaneously letting the class momentum proceed without too much overt interference. Think of it like that most favorite of winter sports: curling. You set the stone a-coastin’ down the ice as best you can, then grab a broom and sweep furiously before and around it, guiding its path oh-so-gently to its intended target. Not an easy task.
Stage Four: Encourage metacognition and reflection
You need to reﬂect on what was done. This, too, need not take up a lot of time, but it does need to happen. If students have been engaged in discussion for forty minutes, they’re likely to have lost sight of the big picture: the point of the discussion, the point of the section, the point of the course. So take a minute or two — or ask a student — to sum up what occurred in Stage 3. Then place that in the context of the Big Picture. All of a sudden, students know why they gave up their afternoon naps and came to section instead. Omigod–there’s a point to this!
Stage Five: Provide guidance and feedback for the next section
Give students an idea of what to expect at the next section and distribute any materials they might need. Since they’ll be completely stoked following the stellar section you just led, they’ll be all the more willing to return if they know what’s on the menu. This is also the time to return work to students.
Each of the ﬁve stages requires a different amount of time, and you may ﬁnd yourself moving back and forth among some of the stages (particularly the middle three) if you need to use section to address more than one discrete topic or task. Nevertheless, conceiving of section as a ﬁfty-minute block of time with a discernible “narrative” will not only make preparing for it easier, but will also make class more rewarding for your students.
After figuring out your plan, the bulk of the time you spend preparing will be directed towards Stages 2 and 3, which form the core of any section meeting. You should think about what you’ll say during Stages 1, 4, and 5, of course—though they’ll take up less time, they’re no less important—but it’s the presentation and discussion parts of class that form the basis for learning.
What do Teaching Fellows often do to prepare for class? When have you finished preparing?
You’ll likely feel most comfortable in the classroom if you’ve over-prepared, especially if you’re a ﬁrst-time teacher. For at least the ﬁrst few weeks, you’ll probably ﬁnd yourself preparing elaborately for each class, reading extra background material, creating handouts, working out a minute-by-minute schedule, and devising various means of fooling your students into thinking they’re being entertained when in fact they’re actually (gasp!) learning the material.
But beware! Not only can over-preparing for class become an easy way to kill hours and hours of your week, it can also make students complacent by discouraging them from taking responsibility for preparing themselves for class. As always, you need to be perfectly explicit about what you expect from your students in terms of preparation and participation. In addition, you need to be perfectly explicit with yourself about how much preparation time is reasonable given what you want to accomplish in section and what other tasks you have to attend to.
The Types of Things that TFs Often Do to Prepare for Class
- Do the reading and problem sets
- Take notes on the material
- Review lecture notes for the week
- Prepare an outline of issues to cover in class
- Make a list of questions to use in class or write on the board
- Make a handout of topics to discuss in class
- Make a study guide to hand out
- Design a homework assignment or question for students to prepare for a future class
- Compile bibliographies or other outside information related to the material
- Assemble visual material
- Prepare slides or videos
- Prepare supplemental reading (be stingy!)
- Prepare handouts on writing tips, research methods, problem-solving, lab techniques, etc.
- Meet with the professor and/or other TFs to discuss the material and how to present it in section
- Review students’ questions to anticipate their concerns, problems, interests
- Make up quizzes
- Devise debates, small group discussion, or other interactive projects (see Chapter 4)
- Copy articles relevant to the discussion at hand from newspapers and other periodicals